Two years ago, the blatantly political appointment of Margaret Spellings as president of the 16-campus University of North Carolina system shocked higher education circles in the United States, for good reason. Her credentials? She was George W. Bush’s education secretary. In that post, she convened the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which released a report that pressured colleges and universities to focus on training students for the workforce. She also served on the board of directors for the Apollo Group, the parent company of the for-profit University of Phoenix.
To make room for her, the overwhelmingly Republican UNC Board of Governors forced out then-president Tom Ross, a highly regarded veteran of academic affairs. Pressed to defend the move, board members could only praise Ross’ achievements and sterling character, then try to change the subject.
Since Spelling’s appointment, the powerful board under her leadership has kept busy imposing its political priorities on the nation’s oldest public university system and one of its finest. In its latest stroke, the board on Friday stripped the Center for Civil Rights at UNC’s Law School of its ability to litigate cases. Supporters of the ban argued that such work is inappropriate for a public university to be doing this at taxpayer expense. Those who oppose the ban argue that litigation is a crucial resource in protecting civil rights and note that the center’s work helps to educate future lawyers. UNC’s Board of also took aim at another Law School center two years ago, voting to defund its Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.
The Law School’s Center for Civil Rights operates on private funds alone, receiving no state money. It researches civil rights issues, performs community outreach and education, and litigates on behalf of clients, many of whom are low-income or minorities. The center was founded in 2011 by the late Julius Chambers, civil rights attorney from North Carolina.
More than 600 law professors from across the country condemned the UNC board’s decision, warning that this ban would impinge on academic freedom and tarnish the university’s image.
The war on civil rights is not limited to Washington. No institution, even those among the most respected in higher education, is safe from attack by Republicans in positions of power. We should remember that when we vote.